The path Tennessee took to Thursday night's matchup with Indiana in the Gator Bowl is as twisty and curvy as one of the mountain roads located just a few minutes from campus outside of Knoxville.
A brutal Week 1 loss at home to Georgia State presaged a 1-4 start that had fans calling for coach Jeremy Pruitt's head. There was speculation that athletic director Phillip Fulmer would take over and finish the season after canning Pruitt.
But the Volunteers suddenly figured it out, winning six of the last seven games to finish 7-5. Suddenly the narrative is quite different. Pruitt's job seems secure for now and he's brought in a top 10 recruiting class, which means some of the most optimistic UT fans have already concocted a path to the CFP finals next year.
For his part, Pruitt is just concerned with finishing this year on a strong note and carrying that momentum into next August.
"We've had a great second half of the season, winning five straight, but we are not done yet," Pruitt said.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 1,937 yards and 16 touchdowns despite being benched twice during the season. Wide receiver Jauan Jennings, the team's undisputed leader, caught 57 passes for 942 yards and eight scores.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers (8-4) weren't that far from a 10-win season. They absorbed a come-from-ahead defeat at Penn State in mid-November and just missed on a victory at Michigan State when the Spartans were ranked No. 25 in late September.
All of Indiana's losses occurred against ranked teams, but it didn't beat a single bowl team, so it has something to prove in this one.
"I think it matters a lot," Hoosiers quarterback Peyton Ramsey said of the game. "Playing a different team, somebody we don't really get to play against and playing well, I think it will carry a lot of momentum (into) next season) if we play well in this game and get a win."
Ramsey figures to be a key part of that equation. He's completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards with 13 touchdowns despite splitting time over the season's first six games with Michael Penix. Whop Philyor has been the team's top receiver with 69 catches for 1,001 yards and five scores.
The programs have met once, also in a bowl game. Tennessee earned a 27-22 win in the Peach Bowl on Jan. 2, 1988.
--Field Level Media